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Travis commissioners oppose discharge into Highland Lakes

Wednesday, October 28, 2009 by Jacob Cottingham

In preparation for a November ruling from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, the Travis County Commissioners voted Tuesday for a resolution expressing opposition to increased effluent discharge into Lake Travis and Lake Austin as well as their watersheds. Pct. 1 Commissioner Ron Davis and Pct. 3 Commissioner Karen Huber were not in court, although Huber’s staff sent out a statement in favor of the resolution. Four grandfathered wastewater plants discharge roughly 811,000 gallons per day into the lakes.


Formally, the court opposed a petition for rule making that was submitted to TCEQ by the cities of Leander and Granite Shoals. Tom Weber, with Travis County’s Department of Transportation and Natural Resources, explained to commissioners why the county is against the proposed rule. “From the information that was presented with the petition,” he said, “we don’t believe that there’s been an adequate justification provided to the public at large, really, that would identify a full reasoning for repeal of these chapters of the TCEQ rules.”


Weber said the rules prohibiting discharge into the lakes came about in the mid-80s under Governor Mark White, beginning with a rule in 1986 that applied only to Lake Travis and Lake Austin. Later amendments extended the prohibition to all the Highland Lakes. In subsequent years, Weber said, development wastewater had been treated and then used for irrigation, often to irrigate cover crop, golf courses, and juniper trees.


Weber said the broadness of the rule change was problematic as well. “The petition suggests not any sort of what I would call surgical or focused amendments to these rules,” he said, “but the wholesale repeal of all of the rules” pertaining to discharge into the lakes. Additionally, he cautioned, “There’s nothing in the petition that indicates that we would prevent a degradation of surface water quality to Lake Travis, to Lake Austin, and … the tributaries of these reservoirs,” such as Hamilton Creek, Bee Creek, and Bull Creek.


Judge Sam Biscoe wondered what supporters of the rule change were saying and was told that the improvements in wastewater treatment since 1986 have had some thinking that the treated effluent would not impact water quality. However, Weber said, the LCRA earlier this year ran some water-quality models on the impact even “very stringent” treatment would have on the lakes and concluded that there would be an impact at Hurst Cove, Arkansas Bend, and near the dam on Lake Travis.


Although Weber conceded that the LCRA study is not the final word on the potential impact, he said the scientific community has not yet had enough time to fully evaluate it.


Bill Bunch of the Save Our Springs Alliance told commissioners, “The move to throw out this ban is consistent with a larger move of backsliding on protection of our state waters,” and he cited last year’s permitted discharge into Bear Creek from the Belterra subdivision. Bunch cautioned commissioners, “I think if you don’t see real leadership from Travis County and Austin we will see these other communities continue to waste water and to dump that wasted water into our lakes.”


Although supporters of lifting the ban also cite the benefits of adding water back into the depleted lake system, Weber said, “It’s worth pointing out that this water that’s being put on land – for instance, golf courses and hay fields – is water that would have to come from somewhere else anyway, and so if that was put back in the lake, you would wonder where would the water come for some of those irrigation techniques.”


Cole Rowland, of the Highland Lakes Group, also expressed his group’s opposition to lifting the ban, as did representatives of the Protect Lake Travis Association.


In a written statement, Commissioner Huber said, “When individual communities petition to make changes that can have potential adverse impacts beyond their jurisdictions, it is important to consider those impacts to the region as a whole. Likewise, when population growth stretches the resources of small communities and their capacity to deal with issues like wastewater, it is time to ask ourselves if we shouldn’t begin to look at how to solve these problems as a region, rather that locally.”

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